Tory hopefuls swerve right as race to replace Boris Johnson intensifies

EuroActiv Politico News

LONDON — Boris Johnson may be (almost) gone, but British politics shows little sign of shifting to the center ground anytime soon.

As the prime minister licked his wounds at his official Chequers residence following a dramatic week in which once-loyal colleagues forced him to resign as Conservative Party leader and prime minister, a crowded field of candidates seeking to replace him began courting their electorate.

So far they’re largely offering a heady mix of tax-cutting, woke-bashing and Brexit-backing policies that will be pretty familiar to followers of U.K. politics under Johnson.

Tory lawmakers looking to land the top job will first have to win over their fellow MPs, who are asked to pick the final two candidates before rank-and-file party members choose a winner from that pair. Conservative bosses meet Monday evening to thrash out the timetable for the contest, which could stretch through the summer.

Johnson himself is staying in the post while the contest plays out, but those hoping for a centrist tilt once he goes might be left waiting. A former Conservative MP said of Tory lawmakers: “I think that they were so determined to get rid of Boris … that they hadn’t really thought about: what next?”

On Europe

The Conservatives are a long way from experiencing Brexit buyers’ remorse if the leadership race is anything to go by.

Even Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier who has led parliament’s tough scrutiny of Johnson’s foreign policy since 2020 and is seen as a moderate, made clear he would continue to push a controversial post-Brexit bill seeking to override parts of the painstakingly negotiated protocol for trade rules in Northern Ireland.

It’s a plan that, under Johnson, attracted real anger from the EU, but no candidate has yet said they would put the legislation on ice.

The other great moderate hope, Jeremy Hunt — a former foreign secretary defeated by Johnson in the 2019 race to replace Theresa May — announced on Sunday he would make Esther McVey his deputy if he were to win. McVey is one of parliament’s most ardent Brexiteers, and has long riled up left-wingers.

Britain’s Attorney General Suella Braverman said she would go one further and take Britain completely out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) —  the longstanding international convention meant to shield human rights and political freedoms in Europe — in a bid to push through Britain’s paused plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

On tax

But Britain’s place in the world has so far been a relative sideshow as candidates fall over themselves to promise Margaret Thatcher-esque tax cuts, even as the U.K. grapples with soaring inflation.

First on the bonfire is a rise in national insurance, a tax on employment which went up by 1.25 percentage points in April in a bid to increase healthcare spending but which has angered Conservative MPs who believe it’s hitting families and businesses when they least need it.

It’s already put one candidate in a somewhat awkward spot — former Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who pushed for more National Health Service spending as the man running the health department, has now promised to ax the levy. Allies of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, due to declare her candidacy Monday, briefed out similar noises in the Sunday papers.

Both Hunt and Javid have promised to shelve a planned rise in corporation tax, too.

Some Westminster-watchers are skeptical, and the pledges come after early frontrunner and former top finance minister Rishi Sunak warned against “fairytale” promises to cut taxes while maintaining high spending. 

“Saying you’re going to produce tax cuts at this stage — given the state of the economy, inflation and everything else — I think it is, to say the least, a brave proposal,” the former MP quoted above said.

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, warned Sunday that the U.K. will still need to spend much more on its National Health Service, social care and pension obligations in the future, meaning either tax rises or a “real plan for major surgery to parts of [the] welfare state.” No such plan has yet been forthcoming, with candidates promising detailed costings further down the track or pointing to unnamed efficiencies that can be made in the running of government itself.

Yet some are at least happy there’s an economic debate going on. Business groups have had an occasionally-rocky relationship with the Conservative Party in recent years over Brexit and tax, and there’s some enthusiasm at the chance to talk tax after months of tumult.

Craig Beaumont, head of policy at the Federation of Small Businesses, predicts that the Tory candidates are “going to be fizzing with ideas,” and said it’s “refreshing” that the Conservative debate has kicked off with the hopefuls trying to outbid each other on tax. He’s long criticized the national insurance hike, and urged more help for small businesses grappling with the mounting cost of energy. “We’ve already seen a whole day today … all about where everyone stands on tax,” he said. “And that’s great.”

On ‘culture wars’

Under Johnson, the Conservatives dipped their toes into the water of so-called culture wars debates, with periodic interventions on hot-button issues like the rights of transgender people and the fate of statues memorializing slave traders.

In a clear sign that these rows will continue to flare as top Tories try to win over the party, Sunak — used to rising above the fray as Westminster’s money man — chose to kick off his campaign with a rare intervention on identity: An unnamed “ally” of Sunak was quoted in the Mail on Sunday criticizing “trends to erase women via the use of clumsy, gender neutral language.”

Several other candidates have entered the fray too, although others, like Tugendhat and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, are steering well clear and urging respect.

Former Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch made a big play of being opposed to socially liberal language and policies, blasting “zero-sum identity politics” as “shutting down debate” in a piece for the Sunday Times. Meanwhile, Braverman on Sunday night highlighted the importance of a fight to ensure legislation allowing her to take maternity leave referenced a woman rather than a “pregnant person.”

What happens next?

As Conservatives squabble over the future, Johnson himself is staying put — for now.

It’s not unusual for defenestrated prime ministers to stay on while the race to replace them plays out, but such was the anger toward Johnson that there were rumblings MPs could try to finish the job sooner.

Yet those calls for Johnson to stand aside immediately have largely died down, according to a former minister who has been taking the temperature of the party faithful.

Westminster now has a “temporary, functioning government,” the ex-minister added, although he warned those Johnson has appointed to the Cabinet in the interim not to “do anything stupid.” 

“They have got to keep things pretty restrained and keep the ship on neutral until September,” he said, referring to the likely timeframe for the end of the race.

Instead, MPs and activists are turning their attention to what comes next.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown — treasurer of the 1922 Committee of MPs that holds the pen on Tory leadership rules — told LBC Radio Sunday he’s “absolutely confident” the contest will be whittled down to two candidates by July 20, although it’s still unclear how long activists will be given to quiz and then vote on the winner from a final two candidates.

While others are less than thrilled at the prospect of a drawn-out Tory bidding war, Beaumont argued that a proper contest, rather than a coronation, could help weed out bad policy ideas as journalists, fellow MPs and business groups get a chance to pore over the details.

“If someone comes out with a promise now that, actually, when you really dig in doesn’t work — that will come out,” he said.

Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.